Four years later, reliability of the 24/7 portal is now 99.9 percent
By Gary Blankenship
Four years ago, you were probably still taking your court-related paperwork to the courthouse (or having a runner do it) and dropping it off at the clerk’s office.
Service was done by mail, runner, fax (if it wasn’t too long) or perhaps if you were progressive by email.
There was this thing out there, nibbling at the edge, known as the statewide e-filing portal for the court system. And while many, if not most, county clerks of court were tied into the portal, usually only a few select attorneys in those counties were actually filing anything through it, more or less as testers. And that was only civil cases. Only attorneys were authorized to do e-filing.
In fact, during the portal’s first month, in January 2011 (a legislative act in 2009 mandated that the portal open that month), a total of 229 documents were filed. By summer, that had risen to 6,225 documents. As the system geared up, sometimes it took days before e-filed documents were docketed, particularly after e-filing became mandatory in civil cases by Supreme Court order in 2012.
Fast forward to this summer.
Document filings now average more than 54,000 a day and more than 1.8 million a month. Some hours have seen more than 8,000 filings — more than the first six months in 2011. Docketing is generally done within the day.
Four district courts of appeal are still using older e-filing systems that do not use the statewide portal (the Second District Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court do use the portal), and the initiation of a new criminal case is not yet originated through the portal. But other than that, with the exception of a couple counties that are still refining their criminal batch filing procedures for state attorneys and public defenders, attorneys are doing all their filing through the portal.
Besides lawyers, mediators, process servers, court reporters, mental health professionals, law enforcement officials, and self-represented litigants can file court paperwork through the portal (although lawyers still account for more than 90 percent of all filings). More than half of the state’s judges are registered with the portal and can send orders and other documents through it, although actual judicial usage is still a trickle in most of the state.
Soon various state agencies, such as the Department of Children and Families, as well as local agencies, insurance companies, the media, and creditors will be able to submit their paperwork electronically.
From a nonexistent option when it opened for business, the portal’s e-service capability was used for 15 million filings in the previous year — saving law firms untold dollars in printing, mailing, and copying expenses, not to mention time.
“This is the first time I believe I can say that I am seeing the top of the mountain,” said Putnam County Clerk of Court Tim Smith, chair of the Florida Court E-Filing Authority, which operates the portal, when he delivered his annual report in June. “We are no longer struggling against time to make a deadline or get another court division added to the portal.
“We are still adding filers. We are still adding services and making the portal better. And it is working. To describe this past year, I think it is accurate to say that this has been a year of stability and improvement.”
The portal’s service desk, overwhelmed when e-filing rapidly geared up, was expanded when the portal authority received authorization to use a portion of fees for that purpose. Most problems — and there are an average of 3,000 calls a month — are now handled in a couple hours.
Reliability of the 24/7 portal is 99.9 percent.
“We’ve got the whole state on [the portal], with the exception of the four appellate courts. We still have some limitations in criminal, on starting a criminal case. Other than those two limitations, we’re completely on,” said former Supreme Court Clerk Tom Hall, who served on the e-filing authority at its inception and now consults with the Florida Court Clerks & Comptrollers (FCCC) on e-filing and technical issues.
Perhaps more notably is after beginning later than many other states, Florida now has one of the most, if not the most, comprehensive court electronic filing system of any state, Hall said, in that it seeks to provide a single system that serves all levels of the court system.
“We’re still way ahead of the curve,” he said. “And most importantly, it’s not costing taxpayers a dime. I don’t think any other system can say that.”
Smith said that came about as clerks and court officials cast around for a way to meet the Legislature’s 2009 mandate to set up an e-filing system in less than two years.
“The clerks’ association, the FCCC, we have a business side [authorized under state law] of what we do [knows at Civitec], and that is where we do banking services. We have developed software applications, and we process payments for a number of entities for the state,” Smith said. “There weren’t any dollars anywhere [for the portal] and the clerks felt it was important for the role we have as custodian of the record to continue to find ways to make that happen. We offered to build that at no cost to the state.”
That prompted an interlocal agreement between the courts and the FCCC to create the e-filing authority, which is composed of the Supreme Court clerk and eight county clerks of courts. The authority subcontracts with the FCCC for portal services provided by its software development team.
Smith said about $5 million has been spent developing the portal – considerably less than other states working on electronic filing.
The key to that efficiency is the portal worked with the existing case maintenance systems of all 67 counties, he said. The downside was because case maintenance systems varied between counties, there were inconsistencies for filers when they sought to file documents in different jurisdictions. Those notably showed up in different titles for court divisions and in the descriptions of document types and titles.
Many of those have been worked out. The authority asked clerks by September 1 to adopt uniform titles for court divisions and types of documents.
That uniformity issue is not the only one that can be mind-numbingly detailed or complex. For example, a couple years ago, someone managed to slip forged paperwork (the actual, paper kind) into the system concerning inmate sentencing, with the result that two inmates were wrongly released from prison. Legislators were understandably concerned, but Smith noted a secure system has been developed through the portal for the clerks and the Department of Corrections to electronically exchange such paperwork.
The success of the portal, which is bringing electronic documents into the court system in a consistent format, is assisting in another ongoing technology revolution: making court records available online. Most county clerks are in the process of doing that now.
Smith said coming challenges for the portal authority will be adding more users to the system so that virtually all documents will reach the court that way (pro se filers can use the portal but also are allowed to do paper filing). At the request of large firms, the authority is looking at a way to do “batch” filing for civil cases, similar to the system that state attorneys and public defenders use for their large volume of electronic paperwork. “Batching” will be done through private vendors, with the authority setting standards and the private companies developing the programs.
Also in the works is the “Access to Justice” program, or A2J for short, which will walk pro se filers through a process resulting in a Supreme Court-approved legal form ready for filing. Work is under way for small claims, landlord and tenant, and simplified dissolution matters.
Hall said that type of utility will likely be extended to lawyers in future years, as the portal evolves.
“There will be a time — we’re not there yet — where we go to the next generation, so if you want to have a motion for extension of time, instead of typing up a motion for extension [and then filing it] you fill out an interactive form,” he said. “Then the court would receive it as a data file, as opposed to a copy of a Word document, and the judge could act on that motion by interacting with that data file.”
Smith said the system is operating well, especially considering the quick set-up requirement and cost factors. He attributes that accomplishment to a number of people and groups working together.
“There’s a lot of smart people behind the scenes that make this happen,” he said. “My job is to start the meeting on time and end the meeting on time. If I do that, everybody is happy.”
This article originally appeared in the September 15, 2015 edition of The Florida Bar News